MONROE COUNTY, Fla. – Hundreds of migrants attempted to arrive to the Florida Keys in just a two-day period while Local 10 embedded with a special team of federal agents.
Agents with Air and Marine Operations (AMO), a specialized law enforcement branch of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, has allowed Local 10 News a firsthand look at the work they have done over the last year.
But the fate of Cubans coming to the U.S. via dangerous sea voyages can differ greatly.
One group interdicted at sea by AMO as well as the U.S. Coast Guard was eventually transferred to a Coast Guard cutter. Local 10 was told there is a joint process onboard to fill out immigration documents, but migrants intercepted at sea are typically returned to their country of origin or departure.
Another group of 21 migrants stranded on Boca Grande, an uninhabited island off Key West, was transported on AMO’s vessel to the U.S. Coast Guard station in Key West. They were taken into U.S. Border Patrol custody where they will be screened and processed.
“If they make landfall then we turn them over to Border Patrol,” said Sam, an AMO agent who declined to provide his last name for security reasons. “They could still get repatriated if they do make landfall.”
Many will apply for a claim of “credible fear” in the hope to stay. Barring criminal history, many are released to family members while they wait for an immigration court date.
Dignares Lamber, a migrant from the Havana area, said the voyage was perilous.
“Super dangerous, there were at least two points where we thought we were going to lose our lives,” she said.
But she was among the group interdicted at sea and transferred to the cutter. She and others onboard told Local 10 they feared getting sent back to Cuba.
“If he goes back to Cuba, he will go to prison for stupid reasons,” one woman said, referring to her cousin on the boat.
“We didn’t give up because all we wanted to do was arrive,” Lamber said, “We sold everything to be able to get here.”